Dr Jonathan Foyle is an architectural historian, author, broadcaster and Chief Executive of World Monuments Fund Britain. His latest book is about Lincoln Cathedral and will be published by Scala next March.
What is an historian?
The ultimate quality of a good historian is someone who cheats time itself. They can reveal truths that could have been lost to record; and encounter the relationships, thoughts and experiences of long-dead people. At the very least, a historian is someone with a deep-seated curiosity about mankind’s journey- a great gift in life. Which is just as well, as most historians are very badly paid.
What made you decide to pursue a career in history?
In about 1981 I found two coins in a field- one was a follis of Diocletian (284-305); the other a halfpenny of William and Mary of about 1690. The fact these copper discs with portrait busts looked so similar told me that history was one long conversation. Through cycling to medieval churches near Stamford, a framework of historic architecture fell into place in my imagination. My life since has been adding to and refining that understanding, exploring the ideas of the late medieval and early modern age, and how they’re expressed particularly in buildings.
What is the one history book you simply couldn’t do without?
Different books suit different kinds of research, of course. I’d say Alec Clifton-Taylor’s The Pattern of English Building (1964) persuaded me of the power of the genius loci of materials, irrespective of architectural style, and I am indebted to him. But if one book were my mainstay, I’d feel in its shadow. I work across disciplines more that I did, and embrace an irreverent approach with constant questioning of how and why authors make claims. It’s the only way to discover rather than rely.
Do you have a favourite website for historical research (or procrastination)? Why?
Google Books is the most powerful research tool ever invented. Just put in search terms and watch the unexpected insight pop up, often from a different field of specialism. It’s revolutionized the way I work, and encouraged my to buy books I never would- an irony of the digital medium. Google Images is also an amazing tool.
What is your favourite historical place?
Lincoln Cathedral is just astonishing. It flaunts its imperfections, but is elegant inventive, engaging, warm- all the qualities a person would seek in themselves. I strongly believe architecture has human qualities. And I want to be in its company, especially when looming in autumnal fog over the pan-tiled roofs of what feels like the first northern city as you travel up the country.
You have a time machine for 24 hours, where do you go?
London, on 18 January 1486 to see the marriage ceremony of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York at Westminster Abbey. I’d want to see how they represented themselves by trappings long since lost, and look around the abbey before the Dissolution and at the royal interiors of medieval Westminster Palace before it was burned. Then on to Old St Paul’s as it stood before the Great Fire, wandering through half-timbered streets for a peek in houses, inns and shops- especially the Strand’s jewellery shops in tallow light as evening sets in, listening to voices and beliefs along the way. I’d want to look at the smoky city from London Bridge as the sun sets. I realize I’d be appalled as well as fascinated. And probably mugged.
You have a new research project and a deadline. What is your normal working pattern?
Evenings, 8-12. Four hours of research and writing a day is my norm, and as much reading as I can squeeze in.
Your period of expertise no longer exists. Which historical period would you research instead?
If the early Tudor age didn’t exist, I’d want to be more immersed in the reforming age of the thirteenth century. If the longer medieval period didn’t exist, I’d like to know more about the cultures of the British Isles before the Romans arrived- though it’s hardly recorded history. But some interesting theories persist about which languages may have been spoken, and there’s music in the names of places.
Why is history important today?
I’m not sure history is crucially important. Humans have a unique capacity to write it, and also never to learn from it. People can live content lives without knowing much about history, and its understanding is never uniform nor absolute- far from it. But having what is always a partial and unique construct of history in your mind is a civilizing force. It helps put your life in perspective and appreciate our ancestors’ legacies, the difference between your environment being a Pot Noodle – fuel to get by with- or recognised as a work of culinary excellence, a craft to be savoured and appreciated. That it’s too often the former can be seen in the insensitive treatment of historic places, the march of industrialized banality catering to our present needs without a thought for the delicious things we’re losing- and might value.
Finally, what is your best historical fact?
That the marriage bed of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York survives. Its brilliant and flawless symbolic design offers by far the most illuminating manifesto for their reign, and links many separate, ill-understood episodes. It will revolutionise the way we understand their accession and the era they began. Two years ago, I wouldn’t have believed that fact.